In 1832 Harper was a delegate to the convention that nullified the tariff and quickly established himself as a leading figures in the nullification debate.
Jurist, U.S. senator. Born on January 17, 1790, on the West Indian island of Antigua, Harper was the son of the Reverend John Harper, a Methodist missionary, and Henrietta Hawes. Brought in 1791 to Charleston, where his father preached at Trinity Church, William grew up in a religious environment. His family later moved to Columbia, where William received his early education in the public schools. He then attended Mount Bethel Academy in Newberry District and Jefferson Monticello Seminary in Fairfield District. In 1805 he became the first student to enroll in South Carolina College, where he graduated in 1808.
Harper first studied medicine in Charleston and later read law under John Joel Chappell in Columbia. After his admission to the bar in 1813, Harper became Chappell’s partner and quickly won acclaim among his peers for his legal ability. In December 1813 Harper was elected to the board of trustees of South Carolina College. Three years later, Harper was elected to the General Assembly from Richland District. On July 4, 1816, he married Ann Catherine Coalter. They had two children.
From 1818 until 1823 Harper lived in Missouri, where he had followed his father-in-law, David Coalter. In Missouri, Harper was elected chancellor and, in 1821, was a member of the Missouri Constitutional Convention. Financial concerns and the death of his father-in-law led Harper to return to South Carolina, where he was elected reporter for the South Carolina State Supreme Court in December 1823. During this period he also argued some significant cases. In 1826 Governor Richard I. Manning appointed him to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Senator John Gaillard. Harper served in the Senate from March 8 until November 29, 1826. He did not seek election in the succeeding session.
In 1827 Harper moved to Charleston, where he again engaged in a successful law practice. The following year the parishes of St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s elected him to the state House of Representatives, where he was elected Speaker. Within a month, however, Harper was elected chancellor. Resigning the speakership, he moved to Columbia. In 1830 he was elected to the Court of Appeals where he served until 1835.
In 1832 Harper was a delegate to the convention that nullified the tariff. He quickly established himself as a leading figures in the nullification debate. The historian William W. Freehling called Harper “the most skillful dialectician in the nullification movement next to Calhoun.” He was a member of the working subcommittee recommending a course of action to the convention, and became the principal author of the Ordinance of Nullification. He also became a forceful voice in the defense of slavery, which he most effectively put forward in his 1837 speech, “Memoir on Slavery.”
With the abolishment of the Court of Appeals in 1835, Harper was again elected chancellor, serving in that position until his death in Fairfield District on October 10, 1847. He was interred in the Means Family Burial Ground in Fairfield County.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.
O’Neall, John Belton. Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina. 2 vols. Charleston, S.C.: S. G. Courtney, 1859.